Dave Martinez found himself in the middle of the dancing celebration in the clubhouse Tuesday night after the Washington Nationals clinched a spot in the National League Wild Card game.
“Yeah, they dragged me in there,” the Nationals manager said. “They are fun to be around.”
Just a week earlier, Martinez was in a Washington hospital, wondering what might be wrong with his heart after suffering chest pains in the Nationals Park dugout during a Sept. 14 7-0 win over the Atlanta Braves.
“I was scared,” the 54-year-old said. “I can tell you that. When I started getting those chest pains, I didn’t know what it was. I never experienced anything like that before. I keep myself in good health. It was scary. I wanted to leave the hospital right away.”
He didn’t though. He had more tests, including a heart catheterization, before being cleared to return to the dugout a week ago.
“I’m glad I got all the tests done,” Martinez said. “Everything came back good. Now I don’t have to think about it.”
It was sort of like taking a team that was 19-31 after 50 games, on the brink of collapse and believing that by season’s end they would be dancing to celebrate.
That’s something Martinez, in his heart, always believed would happen.
“Yes, I really believed that,” he said.
What the Nationals accomplished this season may be hard to put into perspective for fans, considering they’ve seen their team win four division titles in seven years and now have added a wild card to that resume.
The Nationals came back from the dead after the first two months of the season to play the best baseball in the National League.
Give Martinez his due. Not only did he refuse to let his team disintegrate, he accomplished something only eight other teams in the history of the game have done, fighting and clawing back from 12 games under .500 to reach the postseason.
Not many thought he would be up to the task. In fact, not many believed he had what it took to be a major league manager. Martinez had been passed over for managing jobs with the Toronto Blue Jays, Chicago White Sox, Cleveland Indians, Houston Astros, Nationals (the first time, when they hired Matt Williams in 2014), Chicago Cubs and even his own team, the Tampa Bay Rays, after serving as the bench coach for Joe Maddon from 2008 to 2014.
The doubters complained when Martinez was hired to replace the popular Dusty Baker, fired after leading the Nationals to two NL East division titles and 95 and 97 wins.
The complaints got louder when Martinez’s first year ended with an 82-80 record and reached a crescendo after this year’s poor start and erratic play.
But in his heart, Martinez knew he could right the ship.
“I never doubted myself,” he said. “I always believed at some point I would be here.
“I knew I would be able to handle it,” Martinez said. “The one thing I always hear from the players is they say, ‘You never change … no matter what happens, you have conversations with us, you are always positive.’ They appreciate that. I’ve had many managers, and learned a lot from them, the good ones always stayed even-keeled, never rode the waves. Guys like Bobby Cox and Joe (Maddon), they always stayed the same and trusted what they believed in and led by what they believed in. You get the 25 guys to buy in? That’s when you get that one heartbeat.”
There’s that heart again — the key to Martinez’s success. It took a lot of heart to stay positive despite the early struggles of this team and the furor that was building surrounding their failures.
“I sat in my office in New York (after a four-game sweep by the Mets put Washington at their 19-31 rock bottom),” Martinez said. “I got thrown out of the game, but I remember saying, “We’re going to be okay. We’re going to be all right. You watch.
“I can remember having meetings with my coaches when things were going bad,” he said. “I told them, ‘Hey, we’ve got to be positive. This is the time we need to step up. You’ve got to make sure they know everything is going to be okay. Keep teaching. Once they see you are down, you lose them and that can’t happen.’ I’m proud of the coaching staff. I’m proud of the boys.”
That message resonated inside a veteran clubhouse, but it was more than that. Players believed in Martinez’s baseball acumen and saw him as more than simply a cheerleader — despite the outside criticism of his bullpen management.
That was the type of white noise you hear from keyboard managers everywhere in baseball.
Braves fans regularly crucified Brian Snitker for his bullpen management, and it happens in nearly every market. It’s the whine of the fan — and pundits as well. You are a bad manager because you brought in the wrong guy. You didn’t bring in the right guy.
In Washington, there was no right guy.
For weeks, Martinez didn’t have a bullpen worthy of managing. Even the reliable Doolittle struggled. Every decision seemed to be wrong because the choices in the bullpen were so few.
This wasn’t 2017, when general manager Mike Rizzo made a midseason deal to give a beleaguered Baker a seventh, eighth and ninth inning bullpen in a matter of weeks with the trades to acquire Brandon Kintzler, Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle.
Rizzo tried again this season by bringing in Roenis Elias, Daniel Hudson and Hunter Strickland to stop the late-inning bleeding, but while Hudson has provided some stability, Strickland has been erratic and Elias has been missing in action with hamstring problems.
Still, Martinez managed to guide this team — with the worst bullpen in all of baseball — to the postseason and, as of Wednesday night, 89 wins.
“Give credit to Davey,” Nationals starter Patrick Corbin said during Tuesday night’s celebration. “He believed in us.”
Martinez always believed in himself as well, when it seemed no one else would. He knew in his heart what others did not.
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